At Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, a pop-up lounge just for kids (and their parents) is moving through the terminals.
Called the “Fly with Butch O’Hare” lounge, it’s described as a place to relax, take selfies, re-charge cell phones and devices and to learn about the Fly with Butch O’Hare mobile game the airport developed in collaboration with DeVry University.
First, who was Butch O’Hare? He’s the airport’s namesake, Edward “Butch” O’Hare – and this year marks the 75th anniversary of Butch O’Hare’s heroic actions in World War II, saving the aircraft carrier Lexington.
He was honored with the Navy’s first Medal of Honor, and in 1949 Chicago’s airport, Orchard Field was renamed Chicago O’Hare in his honor.
The lounge is outfitted with chairs and foot stools, cell phone charging stations, the airport code in 8 – f00t-tall letters, orange flooring and a miniature plane flying overhead with – you guessed it – Butch O’Hare.
There’s also an almost life-size cut-out of O’Hare and a plane – for selfies.
ORD is also giving out flat photos of Butch O’Hare (on a stick) in the lounge and at bins in the domestic terminals and encouraging passengers to pose with the flat Butch O’Hare while in the airport or and around the world and post their photos online with the hashtag #FlyWithButchOHare.
Looking for the lounge? It’s in Terminal 1, near Gate B12 through August 9 and then moving to Terminal 2, near Gate E1, from August 10 through 31.
Would you pay extra to be able to scoot your seat away from small kids on a plane? Singapore Airlines’ budget carrier, Scoot, is betting you will.
The airline, which currently flies from Singapore to 11 destinations in Asia and Australia, has created a premium “Scoot in Silence” section at the front of its economy class cabin.
There, passengers can pay about $14 extra per ticket in exchange for more legroom and the promise that “the under 12s will be someplace else.”
“I’d pay to sit in an adults-only section,” said Keri Coull, an “unemployed mum/graduate” from San Francisco now living in Scotland. She thinks others would too. “I loved my 2 1/2 year-old, but returning from Mexico was traumatic for other passengers.”
Scoot is not the first Asian airline to set aside a cabin section that is off limits to kids.
In February 2013, long-haul, low-cost carrier AirAsia X introduced a kid-free “Quiet Zone” on its aircraft. And last year Malaysia Airlines declared the upper decks of its A380s kid-free. The airline also bans kids from its first class cabins.
“These quiet zones are part of a wider trend that sees airlines providing passengers more choice and control of the onboard experience without having to pay a lot to upgrade to a different class,” said Raymond Kollau of Amsterdam-based AirlineTrends.com.
Of course, in the close quarters of an airplane, a quiet zone can be hard to define.
“What about the passenger seated in the last row of the kid-free section when an infant begins screaming behind him or her?” said Anya Clowers of JetwithKids.com.
For now, representatives from American and Delta said they have no plans to introduce kid-free zones. And the no-kids-allowed idea “doesn’t quite fit the overall familial vision Lufthansa is embracing,” said Christina Semmel, the airline’s corporate communications manager for North America. (In fact, the airline recently introduced new family and kid-friendly amenities, including boarding passes — but no special seating — for stuffed animals and dolls.)
But in the modern unbundled-amenities world of airlines, having the “opportunity” to pay to sit outside a kid zone on a domestic carrier may just be a matter of time.
“I can see airlines such as United and Delta, who already offer separate zones with extra legroom seats, trialing whether they can turn part of these zones into a quiet zone, depending on the configuration of the aircraft,” said Kollau.
The audience rushing to buy these seats might be business travelers, who are “universally in favor of kid-free zones,” said Joe Brancatelli, who runs the business traveler newsletter JoeSentMe. “(At least) until they have kids and are banished to the kid zone when they cash-in miles to take the family on holiday.”
(My story: “Scoot in silence”: Singapore Air budget carrier offers kid-free zone first appeared on NBC News Travel)
Air travel can be stressful for even the most experienced road warriors. But it can be much tougher for families with a child on the autism spectrum who becomes unnerved by the lines and security procedures at the airport and the tight quarters and strange noises on an airplane.
For the Littlejohn family it was dreadful.
In 2010, they had plane tickets to fly from Boston to Orlando for a vacation at Walt Disney World. “My son Henry, then 6, has autism but had traveled well before. This time he was very anxious on the way to the airport. And by the time we got on the plane he was melting down; kicking and screaming,” said Susie Littlejohn.
Before the plane could take off, they had to make a decision: Her husband ended up going on to Orlando with their older son, Jack; Henry and his mom got off the plane and went home.
Littlejohn thought the air travel process might go smoother if children like Henry had a way to practice going to and through the airport and getting onto the airplane. She mentioned that idea to Jennifer Robtoy, the director of Autism Services at the Charles River Center in Needham, Mass, and Robtoy got in touch with Massport, which operates Boston Logan airport, to see if something could be worked out.
“Within an hour of sending an e-mail to Massport, I got a reply,” said Robtoy. And within six months Massport, TSA, the Charles River Center (which is a chapter of The Arc) and several airlines (including JetBlue, United and Delta Air Lines) had created Wings for Autism, now a regular event offering families with children on the autism spectrum a chance to go to the airport and get on an airplane during a low-stress, dry run.
“A lot of families aren’t sure if air travel is a possibility for them if they have a child with autism. But during this event they simulate everything as if you’re traveling,” said Littlejohn, whose family has attended all but one of the Wings for Autism events Boston Logan has hosted.
“You park, take the moving walkway from the garage, wait in line, show your ID, get boarding passes and make your way through security. Everyone has a boarding time and gets on a plane,” she said.
During the event, the airplane engines are kept running so kids can feel – and hear – what that is like. The planes don’t actually leave the ground, but when it’s time for “takeoff” the cabin door is closed and safety announcements are made. During the “flight,” beverages are served and there’s a snack service.
Kids are also invited to visit the pilots in the cockpit.
“We’ve found that some kids have issues walking down the jetway or when it is time to step on the plane,” said Brad Martin, director of customer service at Boston Logan.
For others it’s when they’re getting strapped into their seatbelts or going through the emergency drill with the flight attendants.
“We know that for some kids it’s just not doable,” said Martin, “But some kids are just fine with everything and then the family knows they can do this.”
Martin said Boston Logan’s Wings for Autism program not only helps kids and their families tackle some of air travel issues, it also teaches airport and airline employees, as well as TSA officers, about the challenges autism can place on traveling. “They learn what to look for and how to handle certain situations and it teaches them to be patient and to see how they can help,” he said.
And that attitude can rub off on other travelers.
“If other passengers see a staff member willing to give a hand when a child with autism is having a hard time at the airport, they may also be more accepting, aware and sympathetic,” said Littlejohn.
Autism now affects one in 88 children nationwide. So while the Wings for Autism program is a big success at Boston Logan airport, families traveling with a child who has mild to severe autism would like to find sensitive and trained staff at all airports.
That may happen.
The Autism Society of Minnesota participates in the Navigating Autism program at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and, thanks to a grant from Autism Speaks, The Arc has licensed the Wings for Autism program and will take it nationwide to more than 50 airports within the next three to five years.
Wings for Autism events are currently planned at the Detroit and Baltimore airports. JetBlue is hosting a program at the Burbank Bob Hope Airport in California on May 4 and another one at New York’s JFK International Airport this fall.
“Because of this program, there will be fewer wedding, graduations and other important family occasions missed,” said Greg Principato, president of Airport Council International – North America, “More people will experience more and more places. And one of the limits autism can place on so many good people will be removed.”
And what about Henry Littlejohn, the 6-year-old whose meltdown inspired the Wings for Autism program in the first place?
Now eight, he was able to get on the plane during the event held at Boston Logan Airport earlier this month.
“It took a lot of hard work and patience,” said his mom, Susie Littlejohn. “We’re getting there, but air travel isn’t an option for us right now. We’re just so thankful there’s an opportunity to practice.”
(My story, Flying with Autism, first appeared in April 2013 as my At the Airport column on USAToday.com)
I’ve been gathering up images and information about fun airline liveries for a story to be delivered next week and finally made contact with a representative at Eva Air, the Taiwan-based airline that has five Hello Kitty-themed jets: Magic, Apple, Global, Happy Music and Speed Puff.
The Hello Kitty theme isn’t just painted onto the jets, it extends inside, where there are more than 100 in-flight service items, including some the fun and very cute items below.
And – my favorite – the kid’s meal.
But Frances Judd seems to have done her research. And there among a list of great focused-on-kids blogs, writers and resource sites such as Colleen Lanin (@TravelMamas), Suzanne Kelleher of WeJustGotBack.com, Debbie Dubrow of Delicious Baby and Anya Clowers of JetwithKids.com, she was kind enough to include my Twitter feed (@hbaskas & @StuckatAirport), my USA Today column and my posts here at StuckAtTheAirport.com as a useful resources for travelers.
If you are traveling this week – with kids or not – be sure to pack some patience. And if you find yourself stuck an airport, see if the 50 airport guides I keep maintained for USA Today can help. They list kids plays areas, good places to eat and shop and offer tips on art exhibits and other amenities.